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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2736

A Political Solution to end the Conflict in Sri Lanka: Symbolism and Substance

By Raj Gonsalkorale

Victory breeds hatred, the defeated live in pain, happily the calm live, having set victory and defeat aside.” President Mahinda Rajapaksa quoting the Dhammapada during his speech to the UN General Assembly

Often, in conflict resolution, symbolic gestures that build credibility go a long way in preparing the ground for introducing more substantive measures over time. The Sri Lankan conflict has bled the country for so long no one expects or should expect miraculous solutions overnight. However, it is important for people to know that our leaders have a vision as to how appropriate solutions can be found and how serious they are about introducing and implementing them when conditions are right to do it. In the meanwhile, they need to comfort those affected with symbolic gestures that builds trust and gives them hope. Some symbolic gestures suggested are noted below.

• Two Deputy Prime Ministers, a Tamil and a Muslim

• Education campaign to better understand the nature of the conflict

• Realistic time frames for immediate implementation of 13th Amendment in provinces not affected by the war, and in the North and East

• A realistic time frame to give full effect to the Language policy

• A realistic time frame to abolish the Executive Presidential system

• Greater power sharing at the centre by all communities

• Announcement of the pillars of a future Land policy applicable for State land

• A bridge building A UN law enforcement task force for the North and the East to assist Sri Lankan authorities heal the wounds of war

These gestures will be discussed later in this document.

The total military defeat of the LTTE is imminent with the brave Sri Lankan Armed Forces almost at the point of defeating them in the last bit of occupied land in the country. To all those Armed Forces and Police personnel who have lost their lives and limbs during the many years of this conflict, Sri Lanka owes a tremendous debt and deep gratitude. All peace loving Sri Lankans must rise not only to just honour the dead, but also to help their families and also to help the injured soldiers, Airmen, Navy personnel and Policemen and their families.

It is very easy to shower praise but it is not always easy to follow with action to match such words of praise. It is not unknown for governments throughout the world to forget those who sacrificed for the country once the main military objectives had been achieved. For instance it is reported that there are ex servicemen in the US who are homeless and living on the streets. These people and their families had sacrificed so much for their country. This should never happen in Sri Lanka.

The President spoke very eloquently at the UN recently and demonstrated to the world that he regards Tamils as equal to the Sinhalese and Muslims. At the cross roads of vanquishing the LTTE militarily, the President, in yet another inspiring speech at the 61st Independence Day celebration, indicated he intends to abide by the Dhammapada stanza he quoted. His government has announced they will extend an Olive branch to all those misguided young men and women in the lower ranks of the LTTE, who fought for the LTTE believing they were fighting for a just cause. Little did they know they were being used to advance the political interests of one man whose only objective was to create a separate State by force and hold on to that by force at the expense freedom and democracy.

As the world knows or should know, Prabakaran has managed to eliminate all moderate Tamil voices who stood up to him voicing conciliatory views on how the conflict may be solved, and all his actions have taken the Tamil people living in the North and the East many decades back.

If these misguided LTTE cadres surrender and handover their weapons, the government has announced they will do their utmost to rehabilitate them so that they can enter the mainstream society and be law abiding citizens of the country. To the families of LTTE cadres who have perished in battle, support should be extended for them to get on their feet again and join the civil society. None of these gestures will be easy for the government or the people of the country who have suffered so much because of the LTTE.

However, being magnanimous in victory will help to heal many wounds on all sides, and will help in demonstrating to the Tamil community that the war that was fought was against the LTTE and not against the Tamils.

Prabakaran and his senior leaders of course will be punished in accordance with the law of the land for the crimes they have committed over so many years. Once Sri Lanka has finished with them, India could take over.

Although some may think that the battles have been fought and won, it is imprudent to believe that the war is over. Firstly, the LTTE should never be allowed to raise their heads again and wage a conventional war or a terrorist war. One would hope that the military objective of the Sri Lankan governments (current and future) is not only to defeat the LTTE militarily, but to make sure they stay that way and never be allowed to regroup. The Armed Forces must also hold the territory so liberated from LTTE terror. For this, the government will obviously require huge numbers of service personnel and expenditure for the foreseeable future.

The only way the government could reduce this expenditure overt time and perhaps divert the role of some service personnel to other activities revolving around development, will be if there is a serious attempt to find a political solution to address the political reasons that gave rise to the conflict.

The other war that is yet to be won therefore is the political war. The conflict that has bled this nation for decades must be solved if we are to truly savour the defeat of the LTTE.

It needs to be said, before others say it, that no one expects the government to introduce far reaching political reforms or detailed proposals even before the dust of the battles has settled. It is also accepted that the war ravaged North and the East needs a substantial injection of funds and effort to develop its infrastructure and its economy and bring those areas at least to something close to most areas in the South, although there are many areas in the South that have been ignored or people living in those areas are as disadvantaged as people in the North and the East.

If the Diaspora that funded the LTTE is genuinely concerned about the welfare of Tamils, they should now support these development activities and also work with the government to achieve a realistic political solution to end the conflict.

Many Tamil people, especially those living in areas that were under the brutal control of the LTTE, will be happy that they are finally rid of that menace. They will without doubt appreciate the restoration of their economy and above all their freedom. However, unless some basic political reforms are introduced, and even if a minority section of the military misbehaves and are perceived by the people living there as being no better than the LTTE, then some of the gains made could dissipate as fast as they were achieved.

Many from President Rajapaksa downwards has said this conflict can only be ended with a political solution. Whatever others may say in these columns or elsewhere, this is what the President of the country has said, not just once, but many times. No doubt being a democracy, anyone can oppose this view and express such opposition, but then they must couple that type of freedom to oppose with responsibility, and show how this conflict could be ended without a political solution.

There are also views expressed by some about President Rajapaksa’a seriousness about finding a political solution, and some are still living in the past arguing constantly about SWRD Bandaranaike being responsible for this situation and others blaming SJV Chelvanayakam and GG Ponnambalam.

None of these will help us to find a long lasting solution to the conflict

Then there are some who reject the idea that a political solution is needed, confusing that with the thinking of some, that the only political solution is the creation of a Federal State, and since they oppose it, condemning the idea that a political solution is needed. They then go on to argue that some political reforms are needed at the centre to make power sharing more equitable and there is greater participation in policy making and implementation. That being a political solution itself is overlooked.

Having read views expressed by many writers and commentators, in the Asian Tribune and elsewhere, it is clear that most agree that a political solution is needed to address this conflict. Some surveys conducted in Sri Lanka also confirms this, and the number one citizen in the country, President Rajapaksa, is also articulating the majority view besides his own, when he says regularly that a political solution is needed to solve this conflict.

What probably is not understood well and accepted universally is the nature of that solution. Perhaps the country needs an education program that is objective and informative, participative, and free of partisan politics, to make its citizens better understand the nature of the conflict, before working out the modalities of a solution.

If a solution is to be foisted on people who either have no idea what the conflict is all about, or who only take in what their partisan political masters say, or decided by a few who use 50 year old arguments that are not valid today to justify the solution, or due to the stand taken by the LTTE and the sections of the Diaspora, Tamils get deceived about a utopian ideology that is simply unattainable and make the conflict even more acute, such a solution or even proposals for such solutions will fail, as they have failed in the past.

At this point it may be opportune to ask the question about areas of apparent agreement amongst the majority of Sri Lankans in regard to what should be considered when working out a political solution. Judging from many accounts, there seems to be some universality to accepting that political reforms are needed at the centre to provide more checks and balances to ensure discriminatory practices based on ethnicity, both in terms of policy development and policy implementation is needed.

There is also apparent agreement that more genuine power sharing at the centre between the major communities is also needed if a more meaningful and inclusive common national identity is to grow from where we are today.

Besides this, all political parties and their leaders seem to have agreed at different times to abolish the Executive Presidential system, although when they had the opportunity while in power, they did nothing to advance such thinking. While an argument could be made that the current climate in the country and the post LTTE period will require a very strong Presidential system to lead the country to an era of peace and stability, there is a danger inherent in continuing with the all powerful Executive Presidential system as letting go of such power will become even more difficult for those who have that power and those who are aspiring for that power.

Again, it is the general public that has to be better informed on options about the kind of governance system that is best suited for the country. Any moves towards change must be driven more from the bottom rather than the top, as with any solutions to address the conflict.

While there is some consensus about the need political reforms at the centre, and to empower the Tamil and Muslim community, the same degree of agreement is still absent when it comes to devolution of limited power to the periphery. Some appear to confuse devolution with creating ethnic enclaves, and they oppose devolution. Others oppose it as they consider Sri Lanka to be too small for such devolution. Amongst some who agree to devolution, they probably do so as they believe it is necessary, at least partly, to address the conflict, and others see it as a means of empowering people at the periphery while at the same time addressing some of the reasons for the conflict.

As this article is attempting to show, a general lack of understanding amongst the vast majority of people as to the reasons for the conflict, both amongst the Sinhalese and Tamils and Muslims, finding a solution has become a top down exercise with a few people trying to do what is best for the majority without knowing what the majority really want.

Many also forget that those who lived and experienced issues of the fifties are no longer there, and that generations who were small children at the time or born later, have had different experiences, and that they do not necessarily coincide with the issues or points of view or experiences of people from the fifties. This is why it is all the more important to have a better understanding of the issues, as a solution based on the past could only create another problem for the younger generations of all communities.

The post LTTE period therefore has to be chartered carefully by making sure Tamils and Sinhalese and Muslims have a better understanding and an appreciation of the conflict. They must also not feel that the President and the government is only voicing an opinion about the need for a political solution, but not really being serious about doing anything about it.

The President is on the right track with his strategy to hold elections in liberated areas (as he did in the East and will do in the North sooner than later), install governments selected by the people living in those areas, engage in economic development programs in those areas as he is doing in the East and where possible in the North, and restore those areas to some degree of normalcy before people living there are able to comprehend what they really need in terms of a political solution.

However, some may regard the Presidents strategy more as a political and administrative exercise and something he is duty bound to do as the President. They may consider that he needs to do more to expand his vision with appropriate action to address the conflict from a philosophical context. This is where confidence building gestures are needed to show that he has that vision. In this context, it would do a world of good for the President if he could demonstrate, as he did when he addressed the UN General Assembly in Tamil, more inclusive symbolic gestures reaching out to the Tamils.

For example, he could propose to all political parties that he would like to have two Deputy Prime Ministers from the governing party and seek a change to the Constitution with a 2/3 vote, and appoint a Tamil and a Muslim to these posts.

It will not fix the conflict overnight and the posts will not carry any real power a this stage, as all real power is basically with the President under the current constitution, but it will send a strong message to the Tamil and Muslim community about the President’s seriousness regarding reforms to the centre, and it will be a gesture that will inspire some confidence amongst the Tamil and Muslim communities.

His vision must include recognition of the diversity of the country and how he intends making it more inclusive and how he thinks real power could be shared so that a numerical majority does not end up with an inordinate amount of power just because of their numbers.

Secondly, he could devolve more powers as per the 13th Amendment to the provinces that are not subject to the war and who are in a better state of preparedness to assume greater powers, and demonstrate that similar powers will be devolved to all provinces in stages. A realistic time frame is needed for this as open ended intentions often result in loss of credibility. What are needed are confidence building measures so that the President does not lose credibility with the Tamil people, and not only words in regard to the vision that the President has for the country.

He could also announce realistic timelines to give full effect to the language policy in all parts of the country, in government offices, law courts, Police offices, schools, universities etc, and private sector institutions; so that everyone will all know what is expected of them. They will also know the resources required for achieving full implementation of the policy and it will become incumbent on the government in power to make sure such resources are provided.

He also needs to articulate a land policy to provide some degree of certainty to all citizens that any future policy relating to State land will have to be approved by a central legislature that will have a greater degree of inclusiveness, and it should also have the approval of the regional legislature that might be affected.

Last but not least, he could indicate that he would request the UN for assistance in having a time bound bridge building law enforcement task force in the North and the East to work with Sri Lankan authorities, to give a greater degree of comfort for the Tamils and Muslims who might still be suspicious of the Sri Lankan authorities even if the areas are freed from LTTE tyranny. Such a move will help in assuaging to some extent, fears that some Tamils and Muslims may have that they have fallen from the frying pan to the fire. It will also bring the President and his government loads of goodwill from the international community.

Political solutions are there to address conflicts amongst the citizens of a country, but they are also forward looking futuristic approaches as to how the country can face its future in the Global village with greater preparedness.

Political solutions must be looked at as proactive measures to avoid future conflicts and as measures as to how best the country can face its future. If they are confined as reactive measures, simply to address problems of the past or just immediate irritants, we could have another conflict tomorrow and we will falter in the way we approach our future.

- Asian Tribune -

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